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Blair crouched behind a chair, trying to make himself invisible in a space that wasn't really big enough for even his small body. He pressed a hand to his mouth, forcing back the whimpers of fear that fought to escape.

Why hadn't his Mom just grabbed him and run, the first time Zack hit her? And he'd hit her again any time she hadn't brought home as much money as he thought she should have, whatever it was she worked at, late into the night every night. Zack had found her the job within two days of meeting her and persuading her to move in with him - and young though he was, Blair knew Zack hadn't found that difficult. Every man she met seemed to want her to live with him, and she usually seemed quite happy to oblige... for a while. Usually she got restless very quickly, and moved on.

This time, though, she'd stayed longer than she ever had before - at least that Blair could remember - even though Zack got mad so easily.

Blair, who had disliked the man on sight, was now desperately afraid of him. At least he was old enough to go to school during the day, and that was fun even although he had to pretend he couldn't really read all that well - he'd learned at his last school that it wasn't clever for someone coming into a class to know too much - even though the class reader was so simple and repetitive that he'd finished it in five minutes. (All the other kids thought he was just looking at the pictures.) No wonder some of the others found "Run, Spot, run. See Spot run. Run, run, run" difficult. It wasn't interesting enough to make them want to see what was on the next page. But even if school hadn't been fun, it kept him out of Zack's way. In the evenings, though, after Naomi left for work... In the evenings, he couldn't keep out of Zack's way.

Although by the time he was three he'd learned that it was no use asking Naomi to leave somewhere... someone... because she wouldn't go until she wanted to, he'd tried asking Naomi to leave Zack on the fourth day.

The first day hadn't been too bad, but then Zack had found Naomi that job. Naomi didn't tell him anything about it, which Blair thought was funny because usually she told him stories about her work, even on the day she started. All she said was that she didn't like it, but Zack had found it for her so she felt she had to stick with it. And that was funny too, because if there was one thing Blair knew, it was that his Mom didn't usually stay in a job she didn't like. He hadn't understood - and still didn't understand - the look on her face when she told him, "I can't leave, sweetie. Not yet. But we won't stay with him longer than we have to."

"I don't like him," Blair told her.

She had sighed. "I don't really like him either, sweetie, but I have to stay with him to help out your Uncle David."

And Blair liked Uncle David, Aunt Betty and their son Robert, though he didn't see them often, so he'd said, "Oh. Okay, then. But I still don't like Zack."

Naomi had taken his face in her hands. "We won't be here for ever, I promise."

And that had been before the terrible evening barely a week after they moved in with Zack, when the man grabbed Blair where he was sitting quietly reading, yanked down his pants and begun groping between his legs. When Blair tried to stop him, tried to get away, Zack hit him really hard and carried on groping him, then unfastened his own pants, pulled out a cock swollen and bigger than any Blair had ever seen, even in the commune where they had lived two or three months earlier, and where he had often showered with the men. Zack leaned over him, and rubbed himself against Blair's tiny penis.

"Don't!" he gasped. "Please, don't! I don't like it!"

Zack paused, then slapped him hard. "Don't you ever say no to me again!" he snarled, then carried on. After what seemed a very long time, Blair felt something liquid splash on his belly, then Zack straightened, pushed his cock back into his pants, and turned away, going to the fridge and taking out a bottle of beer.

When he was sure Zack's attention was on the TV, Blair crawled away. He crawled to the bathroom and wiped the sticky liquid from his body, then pulled up the pants that were still tangled around his ankles. He wanted to lock himself in, but knew that Zack wouldn't react well if he wanted to pee and couldn't get in. So Blair made his way to the tiny closet that was his bedroom, and curled up on his bed - a mattress on the floor.

He was somehow sure that Zack would do that to him again and again, and it frightened him. He had to tell his Mom... No, he couldn't. He couldn't let his Mom know. She'd already made it clear that she wouldn't, couldn't, leave, and he knew it would worry her if she knew what Zack was doing. Somehow he had to hide it from her, hide that he didn't now just hate Zack, he was terrified of him.

* * * * * * * *

Three months later, they were still there.

Every night, Naomi went out to work, even Saturdays and Sundays. Almost every night Zack satisfied his lust on Blair's body. Even when Blair managed to hide it only delayed things by an hour or so and earned him a beating each time; and as each of the few semi-successful hiding places was discovered, Blair's chance of hiding lessened. He hadn't been able to find a hiding place for weeks, though, and he finally accepted that unless he could find someplace where he could hide all the time, all he was doing was making Zack mad, and when Zack was mad he just lashed out.

On this night Zack had brought two friends back home with him. They sat drinking for a while, and then Zack began boasting about how he was getting " - my doxy's bastard well trained. Haven't actually fucked him yet - he's small, and I don't want to tear him, not if I'm going to market him, but I'm getting him used to having fingers in his ass. Another few weeks should see him stretched enough, though. I'm looking forward to that. And I'm teaching him to suck cock now. God, it's good! Ever had a five-year-old? You'll like it. He still doesn't really know what I'm doing, and that makes it all the better. Once he's fully trained, he'll be a little goldmine - just like his mother. Fuck, he'll be worth more than his mother!"

But Blair, who had spent time in a commune where sex was an accepted part of everyday life for the adults, did have a good idea - although he had pretended ignorance, hoping it would make Zack stop. He had never been molested before, but he knew pretty well what Zack was doing. Though it was odd - the grown-ups at the commune spoke as if it was fun... well, maybe it was for them, but it wasn't fun for him! It was just nasty and made him feel bad. The liquid Zack spilled was horrible - slimy and bitter, and made him feel sick. And so, knowing that Zack intended to let his friends satisfy themselves on his body, or make him lick them or, worse, suck them, Blair tried to hide, crouched behind a chair. His little closet was no sanctuary. But then neither was this tiny space behind the chair.

One of the men went off to the bathroom, and when he returned, he left the living room door slightly open. It slowly swung just a little bit further open. Blair grasped his chance, knowing he could get through that space. He knew that if he ran, Zack would see him and he wouldn't be able to escape; and so he lay close to the ground and wriggled towards the door. He reached it and crawled out, then scrambled to his feet and tiptoed to the front door. He opened it cautiously, slipped out, closed it carefully behind him, and ran.

He had no idea where he was going, just that he had to get away.

His feet took him towards the school - the one place where he felt safe. The gate was locked, but he scrambled over it and - walking now - went over to the school garden and tried the door of the small shed where the garden tools were kept. It was locked, and he choked back a sob. At least Zack wouldn't think to look for him here... he hoped. He curled up at the side of the shed and tried to keep warm.

* * * * * * * *

When he woke, he was still cold but he felt comfortable, and it took him a moment to realize he was in a bed.

He was puzzled; he hadn't slept in a proper bed for three months, and his last memory was of getting colder and colder and trying desperately to keep his hands warm, and knowing that no matter how cold he was, it was better than being in the same house as Zack. And so he lay, his eyes still shut, waiting, listening, knowing - young though he was - that if adults thought he was asleep he might hear something that they didn't want him to know...

The voice he eventually heard, however, wasn't Naomi's but the feared and hated one of the man they lived with.

"Yes, that's my girl friend's kid. God, that brat's more trouble... He slipped out last night and ran away. His mother works evenings until late, and I look after him. I didn't know where to look - "

"Did you tell the police he'd gone?" It was a strange voice.

"I was sure he'd come crawling back once he discovered how cold it was."

"And what about his mother?"

"She was tired when she got home. She just went to bed."

"So where is she now?"

"Still sleeping."

"Can you be certain he ran away? He'd gone to his school, so maybe he was sleepwalking - but he was suffering from hypothermia when he was found by two older boys at the morning break. We're getting him warmed up, but as you can see, he's still unconscious. And we really do need to speak with his mother."

"I'm the only person you need to see!" Blair heard Zack take a deep breath, then go on more calmly. "Frankly, Doctor, I'm the one who looks after him. His mother doesn't really care. She's... Well, if I'm honest, she's a hooker... "

Blair lost the next few words as he wondered what a 'hooker' was; it wasn't a word he'd heard before.

"... unwanted. She takes precautions now so that she won't get pregnant again, but... "

"I see." There was an odd note in the doctor's voice.

"So if you just sign him out to me, I can take him home - "

"No!" Blair screamed. Even if he never saw his Mom again, the thought of going back to Zack's house was unbearable. He couldn't just lie here any longer, pretending to be asleep. They'd give him to Zack, and... He stared up at Zack and the man in a white coat who was standing beside him. "No, no, no! I hate him I hate him! He does things to me I don't like!" He tried to push himself away from where Zack stood at the side of the bed.

The stranger looked at Zack, who shrugged. "His mother let him run wild. I've had to punish him once or twice - "

What Zack did to him was horrible, but to make things easier for Naomi and whatever it was she was doing for Uncle David, Blair had been prepared to say nothing. But knowing that Zack had meant to let other men play with his body as well, Blair could stand no more. He screamed again. "No, no, no... "

"Nurse!" the strange man called. A woman also wearing white entered the room, and the man said, "Nurse, would you take Mr. Hoskins to my office, please." Blair was aware of him looking at Zack. "I'm sure he's just reacting badly to the hypothermia and waking in a strange place, and if you're the only person who's ever punished him for anything the memory has probably taken on a nightmarish quality for him. However, I'll get more sense out of the boy if you aren't here. I won't be long."

For a moment, Zack looked as if he would protest, then he turned and left the room with the nurse. The man looked back at Blair, waiting until he had calmed a little once he could no longer see Zack.

"I'm Dr. Young. And your name is Blair?"

Blair nodded warily. "Yes."

"You don't like Mr. Hoskins?"

"No. But Mom won't leave him."

"Does your Mom know you don't like him?"

"Yes. She promised we wouldn't stay with him for long, but we've been there for ever... "

"I see."

"But I don't see her much because I'm at school and she works at night. By the time she gets home, I'm in bed. It's just Zack, and he... "

"Smacks you?"

Blair shook his head. "He... he pulls my pants down and feels between my legs... pushes one of his fingers into me, then he opens his pants and rubs himself against me... and I don't like it."

"Is that all he does?" the doctor asked.

"He... Last week he started making me lick him," Blair whispered. "And he pushes his pe-nis into my mouth, and... He spills something on me just before he stops rubbing, and now I get that in my mouth, and it tastes horrible... "

"And that's why you ran away last night?"

"No. Last night... last night he had two friends at the house. They were drinking, and he started telling them about me, and I knew... I knew he was going to let them rub against me... Or make me lick them... and I couldn't. I don't really know what he meant, but he said... " Blair struggled to remember the words Zack had used. "He said once I was fully trained, that I'd be a goldmine."

"Does your Mom know?"

"I don't think so. She said she has to stay with Zack to help my uncle, I don't know why, and I like Uncle David, so if staying with Zack helps him... But I don't like what he's doing to me." Blair's voice quivered.

Dr. Young nodded, and glanced over towards the door. Another nurse stood there - a nurse Blair hadn't been aware of. "You got all that, Nurse?"

"Yes, Doctor."

"Stay with Blair, please. Blair, this is Nurse Ray. She'll make sure nobody hurts you. I have to make a phone call, and I'll be back as quickly as I can."

* * * * * * * *

Naomi arrived at the hospital not long after, in the company of two quietly supportive policewomen. She was sporting a black eye and a badly bruised cheek. Dr. Young met her and registered the bruises. "Ms. Sandburg? What happened to you?"

She pushed back her hair. "I've been working in the evenings, and get home late. My boyfriend hit me when I got home last night and asked where Blair was."

"Your boyfriend? That's Mr. Hoskins?"

"Yes. Then he locked me in the bedroom for the rest of the night. I knew he went out this morning, so when I heard someone knocking on the door a little while ago, I shouted for help. It was the police."

"Was it the first time he'd hit you?" Young asked.

Naomi shook her head. "No."

"And yet you stayed with him?"

She gave a wry smile. "I'm not a masochist. Doctor, or a fool. It wasn't from choice. He's not the first one to lash out at me when he's drunk or in a bad temper. Normally, if someone threatens me, hits me, I leave; he doesn't get a second chance. But this time... I didn't have that option. I had to stay. My brother had owed him money, and he was threatening David - Zack said that if I stayed with him, worked for him until the money was paid back, he'd leave David alone. But the money's all been paid back now, and Zack still wouldn't let me leave - he said if I did he'd kill David and his family."

"Blair ran away last night. Do you have any idea why?"

"No. I know he doesn't like Zack, but he never said Zack was bullying him or anything like that."

Quietly sympathetic, Young said, "It appears that Mr. Hoskins has been molesting him - "

"What? Oh, God..."

"And from what Blair said, was planning on selling his... 'services'. I notified the police."

Naomi looked from him to the two policewomen. "That's why you came to the house?"

"Yes," one said. "Don't worry; it was quite clear to us that you were a prisoner, and just as much a victim as your son."

After a moment, Naomi visibly pulled herself together. "Bad enough that he was selling me, but at least I'm an adult."

One of the policewomen stepped forward. "Ms. Sandburg, you said in the car that you didn't want to file charges against Zachary Hoskins. Do you still feel that way?"

Naomi drew a deep breath. "There is my brother's safety to consider, but... Blair's safety is more important. Yes. I'll file charges."

* * * * * * * *

At eight, Blair found it easier to fit in to a new school. He no longer had to pretend that he couldn't read; he could even let the class see that he could read well, though he still had to hide just how well. And he was good at games, which as far as the other kids were concerned compensated for his academic achievements.

One of the kids in his class, though...

It seemed to Blair that Art always looked frightened, though nobody else, not even Mrs. Cooper, the teacher, who appeared to have eyes in the back of her head, seemed to see it. And several times Blair saw bruises on Art's arms, though when he asked Art about them, the other boy just shrugged and said, "I fell."

Although even Mrs. Cooper noticed the bruises on Art's body one day when they stripped for PE. This time Art said he'd been rough-housing with a friend and things had become just a little too rough. Afterwards, though, Blair went to him and said, "Art, is somebody bullying you? Hitting you?"

"No," Art said immediately, but Blair knew he lied.

When he reached home that night, he mentioned it to Naomi. "I think someone, maybe his Dad, is hitting him."

Naomi looked unhappy. "Sweetie, if he won't admit it, if he's lying to cover it up, he won't thank you for making a fuss about it."

He looked at her, remembering a time three years earlier when he hadn't told her what Zack was doing to him. He realized now that even at five he'd been trying to protect her; maybe Art was trying to protect his Mom. If he was, Naomi was right; Art wouldn't thank him for making a fuss, but was it fair to let him be hit, bullied, by his Dad? Or was it his Mom's boyfriend?

Blair thought about it, and decided that next day he'd tell Art what had happened to him, how horrified Naomi had been when she found out, and see if that would encourage the boy to say something.

But next morning, Art wasn't at school, and in the afternoon Mrs. Cooper came into the classroom looking very concerned. Blair didn't need the words to know that he'd waited too long.

"Class, I'm sorry to tell you that Art... seems to have been attacked by someone, probably last night," she said. "He was found dead this morning by the side of the road just outside the town. He'd been badly beaten. You should all be very careful until the police catch whoever did this. Don't go with strangers, and if someone you don't know speaks to you, tries to get you to go into his car, run away. Go into the nearest shop - anywhere there are other people."

There was a murmur of agreement from the class, and she began the afternoon lessons.

For once, Blair paid little attention. His mind was on Art. He knew - he just knew that Art had been killed by whoever had been hitting him, probably since long before Blair joined the class, and he wondered why nobody, even Mrs. Cooper, had seen it. At the afternoon break, he hesitated, hanging back as the others left the room.

"Yes, Blair?"

"Mrs. Cooper... I've been seeing bruises on Art since I came here. I asked him and he always said it was an accident, that he'd fallen or something like that, same as yesterday when he said he'd been playing too rough with someone, but I think maybe his Dad had been hitting him."

She frowned. "Why do you think that, Blair?"

"Because sometimes dads do that," Blair said. "I know." He hesitated, then said, "My Dad's... dead, I never knew him, but sometimes Mom's had a boyfriend, and she's told me to think of him as my Dad... and one of them... wasn't very nice to me, hurt me, but I never told anyone, not for a long time. I didn't want to worry Mom. I think Art maybe thought the same, that he didn't want to worry his Mom by telling her... "

Mrs. Cooper looked thoughtfully at him. "Why are you telling me this?"

"The police mightn't listen to me, but they'd listen to you. If it was Art's Dad, or the man his Mom lived with, he deserves to go to prison like Zack."

She nodded. "All right, Blair. I'll tell them."

Two days later, Art's stepfather was arrested and charged with murder. Mrs. Cooper delayed Blair that evening, before he went home. "The police already suspected the man," she said quietly. "What I told them you'd seen - the bruises - just confirmed their suspicions. He's admitted hitting Art, though he says his death was an accident."

"What about Art's Mom?" Blair asked.

"The man had been hitting her, as well," Mrs. Cooper said. "If she knew Art was being beaten too, she was too frightened to do anything."

"What makes some men do that?" Blair asked.

She responded almost as if he, too, was an adult, by saying quietly, "I don't know. It's been suggested that children who have been abused grow up thinking that's the way things have to be, and they become abusers themselves. But it doesn't always happen."

Blair sighed. "Life isn't always fair, is it?"

"No," she said. "It isn't."

Not long after that, Naomi moved on. Blair make no protest; he had quite liked Tom, and he would miss Mrs. Cooper, but he was not sorry to leave the place. Art's death reminded him of... too much.

* * * * * * * *

It took Blair approximately a week to realize that Wes, who had seemed so charming when they met him, was a thief and a con man, and really not nice at all. Of course, unlike some of Naomi's boyfriends, Wes wasn't trying to impress Blair. Inside that week, it was clear to the boy that Wes was putting up with him because if he didn't, Naomi wouldn't give him a second thought.

Which made the day, at the beginning of the second week, when Wes asked - or, rather, told - Blair to accompany him strange indeed.

Blair went, but warily, ready to run if he felt in any way threatened.

Wes took him to a mall, and pointed him in the direction of several small ornaments. "I want you to take two of those and put them in your pockets without anyone seeing you, while I'm talking to the assistant. Then I'll call you and walk out, and you come with me."

"No!" Blair gasped. "That's stealing!"

"You'll do it, kid, or I'll do something to your Mom that she won't like."

Blair looked at the man, and believed him.

Ten minutes later, as he accompanied Wes out of the mall, he could feel the two ornaments burning holes in his pockets. Wes led him into a back alley, and held out his hand. "Let me have them."

Blair hurriedly thrust the two ornaments into Wes' hand. Wes nodded, satisfied. "Right, kid. Now I'm keeping these. You're going to take more things for me, and if you try telling anyone that I'm making you do it, I'll hand these two things over to the cops and tell them I discovered you were a thief, that you'd stolen these. You're too young to go to prison, but the authorities will take you away from your Mom and you'll never see her again. Understand?"

"Yes, sir," Blair muttered.

But, at nine, Blair was more worldly wise than Wes had realized.

Although at five he had been unwilling to say anything to Naomi because he hadn't wanted to worry her, Blair was very aware that, barely a year previously, if he had spoken earlier, telling Mrs. Cooper what he suspected about Art, the other boy might still be alive. He knew that grown-ups often thought children were making things up, but he had also come to understand that children could only continue to be the victims of ruthless adults if they didn't try to let someone know what was happening. And he had no intention of letting Wes make him into a thief.

Sure that he had totally captivated Naomi and cowed Blair, Wes went out that night, with a growled, "I've got to see someone. I won't be more than an hour."

As soon as he was sure Wes had gone, Blair turned to Naomi. "Mom, I'm sorry, but Wes made me steal some things today. He said he'd hurt you if I didn't, and then he told me that if I said anything, he'd tell the pigs that I was a thief, and they'd take me away."

Naomi looked at him for a moment. "All right, sweetie; we're out of here." She glanced at her watch. "He said an hour... Get your bag packed. Ten minutes."

Blair nodded and ran to his room as she moved swiftly to the one she shared with Wes. They met again in the living room eight minutes later.

Naomi put her key on the table and led the way out. She pulled the door carefully shut behind her and set off, not towards the centre of town - the direction she was sure Wes would look first, if indeed he chose to look for them, but away from it.

Half an hour saw them walking down the highway.

They hadn't walked far when a pick-up pulled up beside them. The driver - a young woman - grinned. "Want a lift?"

Naomi smiled back. "Thanks. I'd be grateful." She tossed their bags into the bed of the pickup, helped Blair scramble into the cab, and joined him.

"I'm Franny," the driver said as she restarted the vehicle. "Going far?"

"Naomi, and this is Blair. Far? As far as possible," she said. "I just found out my boyfriend isn't the nice guy I thought he was, and I'm getting the hell out before he hurts me - or worse, hurts Blair."

As the pickup cruised on down the road, Blair relaxed, not really paying attention as his Mom and Franny talked. His eyes closed, and he fell asleep, his last thought a wistful wish that - just once - Naomi would meet someone really nice, someone who really liked him as well, and want to stay with him...

* * * * * * * *

There was almost no warning. One moment Blair and Naomi were sitting in a peaceful restaurant enjoying dinner, and the next there were screams outside, gunshots, and then the sound of heavy feet approaching the door.

"Get on the floor!" Naomi gasped as she slid down to hide under the table. She caught his leg and pulled, and he ducked down to join her.

The door was flung open; Blair heard a harsh voice snarling something - he couldn't understand the words, which weren't in English or Spanish, the two languages in which he was fluent; he guessed at Arabic - the native language of the area they were visiting. Then a gun started firing. There were more screams, some of fear, several unmistakeably of pain; and then silence. The voice spoke again, then the heavy footsteps moved away.

Naomi remained where she was, holding Blair down, for several minutes. At last she moved, crawling out from under the table, and Blair joined her. The so-recently peaceful restaurant was a wreck, with several bodies lying on the bloodstained floor.

"What...?" Blair whispered. It was obvious that everyone else in the room was either already dead or dying.

"There's nothing we can do here," Naomi said quietly. "Come on."

She led him towards the kitchen area, which was empty - Blair guessed that the workers had fled when they heard the shooting - and through it to a back door. There she paused long enough to make sure the street outside held no armed men, then she led him back the short distance to their hotel, approaching it from the back.

The hotel, too, had been attacked; a body lay slumped over the reception desk, and several others were sprawled on the floor.

They had left their passports in their room. Naomi headed up the stairs to it, saying "Get your bag."

On this trip they were travelling light, and both had used backpacks. With no attention to neatness, they pushed their things back into the packs; Blair shrugged into his as she hooked hers over one shoulder, and they went back down the stairs.

Staying in the back streets, they headed for the American Embassy. Several times they were close to being seen by the armed men who prowled the streets, and each time Naomi dragged Blair into a dark corner and hid until the men moved away again.

At last they came within sight of the Embassy, only to discover that it too was under attack, and Naomi turned away, returning to the back streets as she headed for the outskirts of the town.

Slowly the noise of violence lessened as they joined a steady and increasing stream of people who were all moving away from the town centre, converging on the roads that led out of the town. Some were clearly tourists, but most - many of them clutching small bundles - were local people.

"What's happened?" Blair asked at last.

"I'd guess at some sort of rebellion," Naomi answered. "But instead of a peaceful protest, they chose to kill anyone who represented all they were against. There's been some discontent with the government, some hotheads saying their rulers were too anxious to adopt Western ways and were undermining traditional values. Nobody really thought they'd actually do anything, though."

The obvious tourists found themselves moving together into a group that was subtly removed from the unfortunate locals. Anxious though everyone was to escape, the road was so crowded nobody could move fast. Although the airport was only some three miles away, it took their group nearly two hours to reach it, just in time to catch one of the last planes flying out.

As the plane gained height, Blair gazed out of the small cabin window at the flames spreading through the town they had just left.

Naomi looked out, too, and said sadly, "And so everyone loses. The government that was trying to improve the living standards of the people is losing to the fundamentalist bigots. The bigots who see change as a threat are inheriting a situation of poverty that they themselves caused. And the majority, people who just wanted to live quietly, support their families, save something for when they get old, have lost pretty well everything."

* * * * * * * *

Blair hurriedly pushed his few belongings into his pack, knowing that he only had five minutes to collect them before he was thrown out of the house where he had lived for the last four months. Anything he couldn't gather up in that time, he'd lose.

At least he had plenty of practice; packing quickly was something he had done more times than he cared to remember.

Despite that, his fingers fumbled as he fastened the zip pocket, unnerved as he was by the hostile glare directed at him by the woman standing uncompromisingly at the door of the tiny box room, watching intently as if to make sure he took nothing that wasn't his own. As if there *had* been anything in here that wasn't his, he thought, considering the stark bareness of the unheated, almost unfurnished room 'Aunt' Lynda had given him to sleep in just hours after Naomi left, moving him from the still small but comfortable one he'd been in while Naomi was there.

According to Naomi, Aunt Lynda was a relative, albeit a fairly distant one, and Naomi had apparently felt little reluctance at leaving Blair with her while she left to go on retreat.

It was something he knew Naomi had long wanted to do, but children were rarely welcome at the kind of place she had in mind, and although Blair was nearly eleven, he was still far too young - and in any case, although Naomi had taught him to meditate, he didn't think he'd like to spend several weeks in that kind of environment.

Despite that, he hadn't been happy about being left behind, but Naomi had been so delighted about finally going on a retreat he felt he couldn't protest.

He had been aware that Aunt Lynda had been less than thrilled when Naomi asked her to look after Blair while she was away, though he didn't think Naomi had picked up on it. Or maybe she just hadn't wanted to; Blair couldn't avoid learning that most of the time she saw only what she wanted to see.

One thing that Naomi had taught him was to make himself useful, wherever he was, but after she left he had quickly become a servant, almost a slave, spending his evenings doing housework, and doing his homework after he was supposed to be in bed. At least Aunt Lynda had allowed him to go to school, a place he had long considered a refuge. But earlier that evening, tired from lack of sleep and being expected to do more than he had the strength to do, he had accidentally broken one of Aunt Lynda's ornaments. He knew it was one she didn't even like - it had been a present from someone who visited her often enough to miss it if it wasn't on display - but she had seized the opportunity to tell him to gather his things and get out of her house and her life - "And if you ever see your mother again, tell her she needn't come back either!"

Blair pushed one last book into his pack and was fastening it as Aunt Lynda snapped, "Time's up. Out!"

He grabbed his coat off the hook as he passed it, and stumbled out, hearing the door slam behind him before he reached the bottom of the three steps leading up to the door.

Pulling his coat on, Blair stood for some moments wondering where to go. He could go to the school, shelter there till morning, tell his teacher what had happened... but if he did, Social Services would be brought into it. Okay, Aunt Lynda would probably get into trouble, which at this moment wouldn't worry him, but Naomi might get into trouble too, be accused of abandoning him, be sent to prison, and he could end up in a foster home somewhere...

It was one of the reasons she often moved in with some man - so that she would have an address in whatever town they happened to have moved to - although the main reason was usually that she had fallen in love with the guy. And most of them had been quite nice, he admitted to himself. When they discovered he liked sports, three of them had taken him to NBA playoff games. One had even taken him to a World Series. Okay, they had probably hoped that being nice to her kid would impress Naomi - but it would take more than that, he knew, to make her stay for long.

Well, he and Naomi had lived on the street once, though it was just for a few days until Naomi found a job. It hadn't been pleasant, but he remembered what to do. He had to find a sheltered corner, preferably one near a fast-food outlet or behind a restaurant. Although...

Even if he found such a corner, it would be very easy for someone - anyone - else to chase him out of it. He was small for his age, and there was no way he could defend himself against anyone even two or three years older. And he still remembered Zack... and he now knew exactly what Zack had meant when he spoke of Blair as 'a little goldmine'. Whatever else happened, he didn't want to find himself in the hands of another Zack.

He was conscious of hostile eyes glaring at him from a window of the house he had just left, and guessed that if he didn't move soon, Aunt Lynda would find an unpleasant way of making him leave.

Feeling more than slightly sorry for himself, but determined to manage somehow, he set off down the road, walking briskly, heading towards the centre of the town, where he might hope to find shelter for the night. He had to find Naomi, he realized... but although he knew where she'd gone, he had no idea how he could find that place.

His teachers had always said, "If you're in trouble, find a policeman." But that would be even worse than going to the school. Naomi didn't really trust the pigs, and had taught Blair not to trust them either, even although they'd helped him - and her - more than once. Yet all his teachers seemed to think they were completely trustworthy. Torn, not sure what best to do, he hurried on, anxious to get away from the hostile glare he was positive was still being directed at him.

He turned a corner, and knew he was out of sight of Aunt Lynda's house. He kept walking, but more slowly now that he knew himself to be unobserved.


He stopped, and raised his eyes to the face of the woman standing in front of him - a woman he had almost bumped into without even realizing she was there until she spoke.

"Miss Norton," he muttered. In some ways matters had been taken out of his hands. It was his teacher.

She studied him carefully, noting his pack and the tears he had not been aware of as he walked that were running down his cheeks. "What's wrong?" she asked gently.

The gentleness broke him where anger wouldn't. He tried to speak, and his voice broke on a sob.

She put a hand on his shoulder, and turned him, urging him back the way he had come. He stiffened. "No!" he gasped. "I can't go back!"

"I'm taking you home with me," she said, keeping her voice calm. "Just two houses along."

He hadn't known Miss Norton lived so close to Aunt Lynda.

Even the hallway of the house was warm and welcoming. Miss Norton took his pack, blinking slightly at the weight of it. She eased his coat off and hung it up, before leading him into the kitchen, where she put the pack down beside the door. "Would you like something to drink?" she asked. "Milk, juice, something warm?"

"Coffee?" he asked hopefully.

"Coffee it is," she said, carefully matter-of-fact. "How do you like it?"

"Black and no sugar," he said. He didn't much like milk, especially if it was added to tea or coffee, and Naomi had never sweetened anything she gave him, telling him sugar was bad for him.

"Not many boys your age like unsweetened coffee," Miss Norton said as she put a mug on the table in front of him.

"Mom says sugar's just empty calories."

"She's right, but that doesn't stop most people from putting it in their coffee or eating it. Don't you ever buy candy when she isn't looking?"

He shook his head as he curled his hands around the mug, warming them. "We don't have much money, and I'd rather spend my allowance on books. Though we travel around a lot, and there's not much room in my pack for many books, so I don't buy one often. But I haven't had any allowance while I've been here."

She nodded. "It's a cold night to be out so late. Where were you going?"

Blair hesitated. He didn't want to get Naomi into trouble, but the instinct to answer his teacher was strong. "I... I was going to look for Mom."

"Where is she?"

"Big Sur... I think. That was where she went when she left three months ago."

"So where have you been staying, if your Mom isn't here?"

"Aunt Lynda was looking after me, but... "


"I don't think she expected Mom to be away so long. And when I broke one of her ornaments tonight, she threw me out."

"You mean she was angry and told you to get out of her sight?"

"No," he whispered. "She gave me five minutes to get my things packed, and told me to get out and not to come back."

"And all you did was accidentally break something?"

"I think... I think that was just an excuse. I think she was tired of having me there, wanted to get rid of me, and it gave her a reason. I don't think she expected Mom to be away for more than two or three weeks."

"Why did your Mom go to Big Sur?"

"She went on a retreat. They wouldn't take children, so she couldn't take me with her."

"I think we need to tell the police about this," Miss Norton said. "Your Mom left you with someone she trusted - her sister, if it was your aunt?"

"I don't think so. Mom said we were related, but I don't think she was really my aunt - that was just what Mom said to call her."

"Whatever, your Mom trusted her. Turning you out into the street just because you were there longer than she expected is all wrong - "

"I did break her ornament," Blair said.

"What were you doing with it?"

"Dusting it."

"Dust... "

"Mom always said we should help around the house, any time we stayed with someone. Aunt Lynda told me to do all the housework."

"That settles it!" Miss Norton said briskly. "I'm calling the police."

"Please - I don't want Mom to get into trouble - "

"Blair, it isn't your Mom's fault. Yes, she's maybe stayed away longer than she meant to, but she left you with someone she trusted - a relative - and she had every right to expect you to be safe." She reached for the phone.

The policewoman who arrived was middle-aged, grey-haired and with a kind face. She smiled at him as Miss Norton showed her into the room.

"Hello, Blair. I'm Officer Lee. I hear you've had a bit of bad luck?"

He blinked. "You could call it that," he mumbled.

"Are you quite sure your Aunt Lynda told you to leave? She wasn't just angry enough to tell you to get out of her sight?"

"She told me to take my things with me." He indicated his pack. "And to tell Mom not to visit her again, either."

"You're sure she wasn't just trying to give you a fright? If I take you back - "

"No!" Blair gasped. "She doesn't want me there. I... I need to find Mom."

"Miss Norton said your Mom's in Big Sur?"

Blair nodded.

"That's a long way from here. How were you planning on getting there?"

He had had a little time to think about that. "I thought I could go to the library in the morning, find a map and see where it is, then... well, walk or hitch-hike."

"Hitch-hiking is asking for trouble, especially for someone your age," Sergeant Lee said.

"I know, but I don't have any money for a bus or a plane ticket. I don't know if Mom left money for my allowance with Aunt Lynda, but if she did, Aunt Lynda never gave it to me."

He was aware of the two adults looking at each other.

"All right," Sergeant Lee said. "Do you know where in Big Sur your Mom is?"

"No, just that she went there on a retreat."

"I think the police there will be able to find where she is, then. But we have to find somewhere for you to stay till she can get here - "

"Blair can stay here," Miss Norton said quietly.

"I don't want to be a nuisance..." Blair began.

"You wouldn't be a nuisance," Miss Norton told him. "I'll be glad of your company for a day or two."

"Thank you," he whispered.

"Or you could come with me - I'm going now to have a word with your Aunt Lynda," Sergeant Lee said. "What's her full name, and her address?"

"Mrs. Boddy," Blair said. "Mrs. Lynda Boddy. 635 West Street. It's just around the corner."

She went on, "I expect, though, she'll say she just wanted to give you a fright, and expected you to go back quite soon, very apologetic and promising you'd be more careful."

"And then it's just my word against hers that she told me not to go back, and everyone always believes a grown-up, rather than a child." Blair was careful not to sound as if he was whining.

"I'm afraid so," Sergeant Lee said.

Blair licked his lips. "I'd... I'd rather stay here, if Miss Norton really doesn't mind."

The two adults looked at each other again. "Says a lot, doesn't it?" Miss Norton murmured, then, more loudly, "I really don't mind, Blair."

* * * * * * * *

Naomi arrived four days later, knocking on the classroom door early in the afternoon. Miss Norton went to the door, opened it and went out.

Blair never knew exactly what she and Miss Norton said to each other, but after a few minutes Miss Norton opened the door and called Blair out.


"Blair! Oh, sweetie, I'm so sorry. I know I stayed away longer than I meant to, but I was learning so much, and I was sure you'd be all right with Aunt Lynda. Did you help her around the house?"

"I did all the housework, Mom. I had to do my homework after I should have been in bed. That's why I was so tired that I dropped her ornament when I was dusting it. And she didn't really give me enough to eat. I was always hungry."

"You didn't tell me that, Blair," Miss Norton said.

"I didn't want to sound like I was... well, hinting at anything," Blair said.

"Well, if Miss Norton will let you go home with her tonight, I'll go and have a work with Aunt Lynda," Naomi said.

"Mom, she said to tell you she didn't want to see you again either," Blair told her.

"Blair, sweetie, I've got one or two things to say to her. Miss Norton said you told her you didn't get an allowance? I left money with her for your food and your allowance - the arrangement was that she'd give me whatever was left when I got back, or I'd pay her anything she spent more than I left with her. She's owe me some money."

"Mom, it's my word against hers."

"Yes, and you've never lied to me," Naomi said.

Blair never did find out exactly what Naomi said to Aunt Lynda, but when she arrived at Miss Norton's at about 6 o'clock, she had a satisfied look on her face.

Miss Norton insisted that they stay with her that night, and they left in the morning, moving away from the area; but Blair remained in touch with her, exchanging letters at least once a month for the next six years, until he got a letter from her sister saying that she'd died from a heart attack. He comforted himself with the knowledge that, before she died, Miss Norton knew that the boy she had helped had, at sixteen, gone as a freshman to Rainier University; that he was making a success of his life.

* * * * * * * *

At twelve, still small for his age and far lighter than the other boys in his class, Blair often found it hard to be accepted by them, so when Tommy Danbush dared him to climb to the very top of one of the trees in his mother's garden, he didn't hesitate.

What he didn't know - what Tommy didn't know - was that one of the branches half-way up was rotten, and it broke when Blair put his full weight on it as he debated his next handhold. Balancing himself with only one hand pressed against the trunk, Blair had no way of preventing the fall. Landing awkwardly, he felt a sharp pain in his right arm, and knew that he had done something nasty to it.

At least his broken arm gained him some kudos among the other boys, especially since Tommy could tell them that Blair didn't once cry out, and Blair himself was careful to point out to anyone who asked that it had been an accident, and nobody's fault but his own. He should, he said, have been careful to hold on to a good strong branch with at least one hand.

With his right arm out of action, he taught himself to write after a fashion with his left hand, but he was grateful that that they moved on again soon after, and Naomi kept him out of school until his arm had healed and he could use it again.

* * * * * * * *

The road was quiet as the early morning bus started up the long uphill stretch of its route. Sitting at a window seat, Blair gazed happily at the passing scenery, wondering if - this early in the day - he might catch sight of a coyote or a few deer or a circling eagle.

The unprotected drop on the right hand side of the road was getting steadily deeper, and he wondered how high they would go before the bus reached the top and started down the other side. He wasn't happy with high places, not since he had fallen out of Mrs. Danbush's tree the previous year - but here, in the bus, he felt safe.

Suddenly the bus swerved, and before anyone could react, it dropped over the side of the road, rolling down the steep slope.

At the first bounce, Blair slipped down into the space between the seats, partly under the seat in front, and braced himself as best he could against the rolling, jolting descent.

It seemed to last for ever, and at last the bus slammed up against something and came to a halt, lying on its side. Slowly, Blair wriggled free of the small space that had kept him from being thrown around. He was on what was now the floor of the bus; he pushed himself upright, looking around for Naomi.

She had been thrown onto the seat in front, and was lying very still. He became aware of some moaning, and realized that he was the only person moving.

He knew a little first aid - enough to know that he shouldn't really try to move anyone, no matter how awkwardly they seemed to be lying - if indeed he could move one of the adults on his own. He checked Naomi, noting that she seemed to be breathing all right, and although she was bleeding from several cuts on her arms, the blood loss seemed superficial. He moved on, crawling where necessary, and checked the other eight passengers who still occupied the vehicle. Five were unconscious, but their breathing seemed to be all right; one of the others had an obviously broken leg, and the other two were held in place by smashed-in bodywork. There was no sign of the driver or of... he thought for a moment... at least three other passengers, or was it four? They must have been thrown out as the bus rolled.

The man with the broken leg was clutching a cell phone; Blair looked at it, then at its owner, who shook his head. "No signal," he said.

Blair was the only one uninjured. He peered up at the road, wondering if anyone had seen the bus leave it, but he couldn't see if anyone was up there. As the only one apparently unhurt, the only one mobile, it was up to him to get help, he realized. He told the conscious passengers that he was going for help, took the cell phone when it was held out to him and put it in his pocket, scrambled out of the broken front window, and started up the slope.

It was easy to follow the line the bus had rolled down. It was marked by pieces of glass and metal that had broken off with every bounce. Blair suspected that although it was the most direct route, it wouldn't necessarily be the best one. He could, however, use it as a guide. He began to scramble uphill.

He came on the first body - or could he call it the last, he wondered, since it had to be the last one to be thrown out of the bus - after only a few minutes. A woman lay there, crumpled in an awkward heap. Pausing, feeling slightly sick as he looked at her, he gave the body a quick check. It seemed as if all the skin had been scraped off her arms - they looked like raw meat, but were no longer bleeding.

He was pretty sure she was dead.

In any case, there was nothing he could do for her. He scrambled on.

Before long, he reached what he could only call a rock face. Blair stopped and looked upwards. It was only about ten feet high, he decided, but it was very steep and a quick glance behind him was enough to tell him that he didn't really want to tackle the direct route. He looked to right and left, and saw that if he went several yards to his left, the rock face disappeared under a layer of soil.

Moving carefully sideways, he edged over until he was no longer facing nearly-sheer rock. At least it was now a ten-foot stretch of nearly-sheer grass-covered slope where he had potentially far more effective handholds.

Taking a deep breath, he scrambled upwards. He had a heart-stopping moment when the soil under one foot slipped, but the grass he was clutching remained firmly rooted and he pulled himself upwards.

The angle of the slope lessened a little and he carried on.

Another hundred feet, and he found another body. He paused again to check the man, and decided that this one, too, was dead. Swallowing, he turned back to the climb.

He completely lost track of time as he forced himself upwards. He passed one more body, but as he approached a fourth he heard a soft groan. He scrambled to the man, who blinked pain-filled eyes at him.

"I'm going for help," Blair said. "I'll be as quick as I can."

"Okay," he breathed.

Blair carried on. He reached another rock face, but this time he couldn't see any way around it. Luckily it wasn't quite so sheer as the lower one. Biting his lip, and forcing himself to not look down, he found handholds and began climbing.

At the top he lay for a moment, panting, then scrambled to his feet and forced himself on.

He was surprised when, after only a few steps, he found himself on the road.

He tried the phone, but it still wouldn't work. It must have hit against something and been broken, he decided, unless he still wasn't high enough to get a signal. He sank down to the ground, resting, suddenly aware of being very tired.

It was still fairly quiet, but after two or three minutes he heard a car approaching. He scrambled to his feet and began waving frantically as it came towards him.

For a moment he thought it wasn't going to stop, but at the last minute it slowed. Later, he realized that the driver was probably puzzled by the presence of a young boy at the roadside, with no vehicle in sight.

The driver lowered the window. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"Bus... went over the edge. There's at least ten hurt, and three I think are dead."

The driver and his passenger looked at each other, then the passenger got out of the car and walked around it to peer over. "There *is* something down there," she said.

"One of the hurt guys is just a little way down," Blair said. "I think he was thrown out when the bus rolled."

The driver pulled out a cell phone and punched in the numbers. Blair realized that meant the one he was carrying *was* broken; but he was only half aware of the man giving the details to the emergency services. Now that he had found help and no longer had to do anything, shock had finally caught up with him, and Blair hunched over as he lost the contents of his stomach.

The people in the car took a blanket from the trunk and put him in the back seat, wrapped in it, while they waited for the rescue services.

* * * * * * * *

There were four dead, and ten survivors of the accident - one of the injured in the bus died before help could reach him. One of the dead was the driver; an autopsy established that he had suffered a heart attack, and was probably dead before the bus went off the road. The other survivors considered Blair something of a hero, for tackling the long climb back to the road. As one of them said, several of them probably owed their lives to him, for nobody else was in a fit state to go for help. And while the alarm would have been raised when the bus failed to reach the next town on schedule, a search along its route might have taken a long time to find it.

Naomi, afraid that the attention would go to Blair's head, kept him out of the limelight as much as possible, though she couldn't prevent his photo from being printed in the paper along with the report of the accident; and as soon as she was released from the hospital headed quietly off without telling anyone where they were going.

They were both still stiff from the long drop and the battering it had given them, but as long as they moved slowly they didn't stand out. And this time they flew; Naomi suspected that if they travelled by bus Blair might be recognized. She was fairly sure that the airport staff and aircrew wouldn't have the same interest in the survivors of a bus accident that the staff of the bus station would have.

And so it was. Naomi decided to go to Fort Worth, where she had an aunt they could stay with while they recovered completely, and they flew there unrecognized. In any case, it was time for Blair to go back to school, this time for a lengthy period, to prepare him for the academic future that he wanted, and she knew that this aunt would be happy to give Blair a home for as long as necessary.

* * * * * * * *

Blair was sixteen when he went to Rainier, and the first thing he learned was loneliness.

His social interaction for sixteen years had been either with adults or his own age group; now, for the first time, he found himself in a situation where his fellow students were at least two years older than himself. He had no trouble with that, but he quickly discovered that as far as they were concerned, those two years created an abyss that was uncrossable.

They accepted his presence at lectures, and he had no trouble with any of them, but when they went out in the evenings, even the friendliest of them didn't want him along. He was too obviously under-age; and when he tried to ask one of the girls on a date, although her refusal was kind, he was left in no doubt that she - and by extension, all of the girls - considered him by far too young. He tried joining the guys training for basketball, only to have the coach tell him that although he was good, he lacked the inches that were a requisite for being picked for the team.

It took very little time before he realized he was something of a misfit - an outcast, even. It all hurt, and to cover that hurt, he affected a headstrong, stubborn attitude; in short, he became a brat. His faculty adviser was Hal Buckner, and he was quick to see in Buckner a patronising quality that he resented. Blair knew he was clever, but Buckner, he felt, saw only his youth. And so he projected a know-it-all air of self-confidence far greater than he actually felt.

He didn't like Buckner; and Buckner, he knew, didn't like him.

Blair spent his evenings and weekends studying - it gave him something to do - even as he wondered if perhaps he'd made a wrong choice when he told Naomi he wanted an academic career.

At least he had always found books to be congenial companions. But sometimes he hungered for human contact.

He found it in Eli Stoddard, his anthropology lecturer. Sometimes he thought that the only thing keeping him from severe depression during his first two years at Rainier was the attention Stoddard gave him.

Although they had spent a lot of time in America, Blair's years of travelling with his mother had taken him to many different countries, albeit mostly briefly. He had, however, been a keen observer of the different life styles he had seen, and he had a good memory.

Stoddard, himself a keen observer, hadn't taken long to notice Blair despite the number of students in the class, and had kept an eye on him in the early days. He noticed the change in the boy from friendly to brat, and guessed at the cause; but he also noticed that in his classes, the youngster reverted to what Stoddard believed was his true personality, participating in the discussions Stoddard often initiated in order to make his students think, often making insightful comments while being willing to listen to what others said.

It was after the second of those discussions - on the impact of civilisation on the primitive way of life - that Stoddard asked Blair to remain behind at the end of the lecture.

"You made some good points today, Blair." He was careful to keep his voice congratulatory, speaking as he would to an older student.

"Thank you, sir." Faced with a professor who was clearly taking him seriously, Blair dropped the attitude that so irritated most of the Rainier faculty with whom he came in contact.

"You sounded very well-informed," Stoddard went on. "You didn't say so, but I got the impression that you've had first-hand experience with the situation we were discussing."

Blair glanced at him, wondering for a moment if his assessment of Stoddard had been wrong, and the man was mocking him, but then, seeing only interest in his eyes, he nodded. "Yes," he said. "Once. I've been to a lot of places all over the world, and there was one time in Brazil Mom got involved with a 'tribal rights' movement. There was a logging company that wanted the rights to fell a fairly large area that was home to one of the small tribes. They'd had enough contact with the world outside the forest to try to fight the loggers at a political level, and they had quite a few supporters. But in the end they lost. Ended up in a sort of shanty village on the edge of the nearest town, picking up low-paid laboring jobs on the farms, and with a standard of living that was far below what they'd known as hunter-gatherers.

"If that could happen to a tribe that knew something about civilisation, a tribe that has had no contact at all would be completely lost."

"Yes," Stoddard said. "I'm sorry that you weren't able to convince most of the other students."

"I don't think many of them are seriously interested in cultural anthropology, Professor," Blair said. "They see 'our' way of life as the best way, and consider it the duty of Western cultures to 'modernise' the primitive races."

"I know," Stoddard agreed sadly.

After that, it was Stoddard that Blair went to when he needed advice, rather than to Buckner. From being a mentor, Stoddard quickly became a surrogate father.

By his third year in Rainier, the age gap between him and the other students took on less significance; he found that the two-year age gap, that had been so important when he was just sixteen, was far less so now that he was eighteen. He gained friends, but he still considered Stoddard to be his best friend at Rainier.

* * * * * * * *

Years passed. He met Jim Ellison, spent four years as his unpaid partner at the PD, and then, after Naomi's well-meant but disastrous interference with his dissertation, joined the police as Jim's official partner.

Apart from Stoddard, Jim was the first man Blair had trusted completely since he was five years old.

* * * * * * * *

It was a hellishly bad case, brought to the attention of the police and Child Services by the school - one of the teachers had noticed enough to make her very uneasy about the welfare of one of her pupils; nine-year-old Marina, the oldest of the three sisters, found the courage to tell Megan just what her stepfather had been doing... whispering too of the threats he had made, the things he had said he would do if any of them told anyone about him; and that her mother had done nothing to stop him, adding, "I think she was afraid of him too."

When he was charged, Eric Davis blustered, saying the child was lying and demanding that his wife support his story, insisting that in spite of everything he could do the child resented her mother's remarriage and wanted to make him look bad. However, Vera Davis gave the police - specifically Jim and Blair - a horrifyingly detailed account of the abuse *she* had suffered if she opposed her husband. After the first time, she had not dared to protest his treatment of her daughters, but when they questioned her after he was arrested, she told them she was afraid that Davis had married her simply to get his hands on three very young girls.

"He seemed so nice before we married," she said sadly.

* * * * * * * *

After dinner that night, Blair told his partner he was going for a walk - "I'm feeling restless. No, you don't need to come - I won't be good company tonight. Just relax and enjoy the TV, man - for once, it's totally your choice!"

Jim looked thoughtfully at him, suspecting that there was more to it than just 'feeling restless', but he nodded, even as he wondered - not for the first time - how much personal experience Blair had of the ugliness life could throw at people.

Blair talked a lot, but Jim had long realized that he didn't say very much about himself. What he did say... To hear him speak, his life had been a blast, with Naomi's various boyfriends all being nice to him. 'I went to three World Series, five NBA playoff games,' he'd told Jim once. But if 'every man Naomi met would fall in love with her. She never stayed with any of them for very long though', Jim suspected there might well have been some who didn't make nice with her son. It was probable, though, that if they moved around a lot, when Naomi saw any of them abuse Blair, she grabbed him and ran.

Jim knew that he'd never ask Blair. He had some secrets he'd carry to the grave; it was only fair that he allow Blair to have some secrets too.

* * * * * * * *

When he went out, Blair truly had no destination in mind; but he wasn't surprised when, an hour later, he found that his feet had taken him to the Davis' house. He stood for some minutes looking at the door, then crossed to it and knocked.

It was opened cautiously, just a couple of inches, and he noted that it was on a chain. "Hello, again, Mrs. Davis," he said.

"Oh - Detective Sandburg. Is... They haven't let Eric go, have they?"

He smiled reassuringly. "No, there's no danger of that," he said. "It's just... Can I have a word with you?"

She unfastened the chain and opened the door wider. "Come in."

As she showed him into the living room, she asked, "Coffee?"

"No, thanks," he said as he sat. "I won't keep you long. The children in bed?"

She sat opposite him, but it was clear that she wasn't relaxed. "I got my sister to take them for a few nights. I... Although I haven't been arrested, I have to stand trial too, you know, for neglect. I thought it better to get them away from all the publicity. And... and it'll get them used to being with her if I'm..."

Blair nodded. "Good idea," he said. "But I'm sure the court will take into account that you've been as much a victim as the children. I don't think you need worry too much."

"Thank you," she whispered.

"I just wanted to say... I know exactly how you feel just now; exactly how your children feel."

"You can't. Nobody can! To love and trust somebody... and then... " She broke off, fighting to retain some degree of composure. "One thing he said was true. Marina didn't ever like him. But I was sure that once we were a family, she'd change her mind... If I'd listened to her... "

"Children often have an instinct that adults lack," Blair said. "Just when or how they lose it, I'm not sure. But I do know how you feel, because my mother and I were in almost exactly the same position when I was five."


"It wasn't a case of Mom being in love, though. That's the only difference. The guy was threatening my uncle, and said he'd leave him alone if Mom went to live with him, but it wasn't long before he started hitting her. She put up with it to protect Uncle David. He found Mom a job where she had to work nights, and every night after she went out, he started molesting me. Started off small, just getting off on rubbing himself against me, but it got steadily worse. I didn't want to worry her, so I didn't tell her what he was doing to me. Then one night he had two friends visiting. I heard him tell them he was 'training' me, planning to sell me - my 'services' - once I was 'properly broken in'... and offering to let them try me. It was too much. I was lucky; I saw the chance to run, and took it.

"He tried exactly the same 'defence' that your husband did - claimed that I was lying because in spite of everything he did, I resented him - but it didn't help his case that when the police went to the house to contact Mom, they found that she was locked into the bedroom and had a badly bruised face. He'd hit her for daring to ask where I was. And when the choice was between my safety and Uncle David's, she chose me. As a result, the guy got twenty years. The court accepted that Mom was a victim too.

"It happened a long way from here, and none of my friends and colleagues know about it. But I wanted you to know that at least one of us does completely understand your situation."

"Yes," she murmured. "Thank you. You won't let him get away with it, will you."

"No," Blair said. He licked his lips. "Mrs. Davis, there's just one more thing."


"Don't let this make you bitter. Don't be afraid to trust again. Maybe not right away; you will need time to put it behind you. But don't write off the other half of the human race because you met one persuasive louse - and don't let your children assume that all men are lurking in wait to molest them. You won't need to warn them not to trust strangers; you will need to encourage them not to mistrust all men."

A tear ran down her face. "Eric seemed so nice, so trustworthy," she said quietly. "And all he wanted... "

"You can always get away," Blair said. "You just have to be willing to abandon everything except the one thing that matters - your children. I know, that isn't always easy. But how much better to leave, to move away, to go to another town where he can't find you, than let yourself - or worse, your children - be brutalised. Money? If you have none, find a homeless shelter. They'll advise you, help you. Jobs are easy to find if you're willing to work for minimum wage. Places like supermarkets are always looking for staff. It doesn't pay all that well, there are no tips and the hours are often crap, but it's a job that'll keep you going while you look for something better paid, with better hours. Find an elderly woman neighbor and ask her to help - they're often willing to act as surrogate grannies if your hours of work are anti-social."

She looked at him. "I... I did think of leaving him," she admitted. "But I never thought of leaving Cascade. I've lived here all my life. And I was sure that even if I left him, Eric would find me and drag me back."

"Moving was something Mom did easily," Blair said. "We never stayed long in one place. I lost count long ago, but I think I lived in at least fifteen different states and visited twenty different countries before I was sixteen and came to Cascade. It's not easy finding someone who's footloose."

"But my children - their schooling... "

"I usually went to school wherever we stopped, though it was usually for just two or three months, and I read a lot. It didn't hold me back; I was accepted by Rainier and started there when I was sixteen. I've lived in Cascade ever since. I don't see myself moving away, but if circumstances demanded it, I would. Not without some regrets, but if circumstances demanded it, I'd leave.

"Now I think I've given you enough to think about. Just remember you always have options." He got up, and smiled. "I'll see you in court. The prosecution lawyer will guide you through things. Don't be afraid to tell the court everything - all the threats he made, all the times he hit you. Don't look at him - he'll try to glare at you, try to intimidate you. Don't let him. For your children's sake if not your own, don't let him intimidate you."

She showed him out, and he heard the chain snicking into place. He stood for a moment, then started off on the hour-long walk back to the loft.

* * * * * * * *

Jim looked up as Blair entered the loft. "Okay?" he asked as Blair hung up his coat.

Blair nodded. "Yeah, I... " He took a deep breath. "I ended up going to see Mrs. Davis. Tried to persuade her not to let this affect the way she looks at men in future."

"Ah. Think you managed?"

"I hope so." He sank onto the couch beside Jim, who slipped an arm round his shoulders. Blair sighed and leaned into the embrace. "I'm sorry."


"I haven't been in too good a mood this last day or two."

Jim pulled him a little closer. "Cases involving kids are always hard. At least they're safe now."

Blair looked up, smiled, and murmured, "Yes. At least they're safe now."

And so am I, he thought.


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